September 15, 2016


The power of magical thinking : Feelings-first voters have found a voice in Donald Trump (The Economist, Sep 15th 2016)

FOR some voters, fact and feeling are one and the same. To them unseen forces can be omnipotent and scientific explanations a mere distraction. But until recently, this sort of "magical thinking" knew no political party. 

That may be changing. Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, argues in a forthcoming book that Donald Trump's unexpected rise to the top of the Republican Party is "further evidence of the ontological split in American politics" between conspiracists and empiricists. The central schism in American politics may be less between liberals and conservatives than "intuitionists" and "rationalists", Mr Oliver argues. After all, the intuitionists now have a candidate: From his "birther" idea that Barack Obama was not born an American to his recent insinuations that the president is in cahoots with Islamic State, Mr Trump's political political career has been grounded in conspiracy theory. Many of his supporters seem to be similarly unpreoccupied with truth.

Following Mr Oliver's work, we asked YouGov to poll American voters and measure different elements of magical thinking, including conspiracism and "pessimism", or the tendency to believe that terrible things, like a terrorist attack or war with Russia, would happen soon.

Conspiracy has a perhaps an unfair association with fringy, foil-hatted types; in fact 60% of the 2,600 people surveyed in our sample expressed belief in at least one of the six theories we asked about. Alongside questions about chemtrails, telepathy and the disproven vaccine-autism relationship, we also asked whether the September 11 attacks were an inside job, the American government has made contact with aliens and whether Wall Street colluded to crash the global economy in 2008 (the most popular, with 35% agreeing). 

Both pessimism and belief in conspiracy theories were associated with support for Mr Trump, even when we controlled for party identification, religion and demographics. Indeed 55% of voters who scored positively on our conspiracism index favoured Mr Trump, compared with 44% of their less superstitious peers.

Improbably enough, Hillary wears the pants in this relationship.

Posted by at September 15, 2016 4:15 PM